Flexibility for Change

Although I am at a loss to envision science education in 2025, I predict changes in undergraduate science education in the next thirty years will continue to increase at an accelerating rate. These changes will probably be considerably more dramatic and unpredictable than those in the past thirty years. If current trends continue, we'll need curricula and facilities that support collaborative learning, informal student-teacher interchange, the study of interdisciplinary topics, and the use of sophisticated computer tools and scientific instruments.

In the face of accelerating change, it will be critical for teachers to realize that what students learn will be less important than how they learn. Recently a physicist, just retired after a long career at Los Alamos National Laboratory, listed about 20 topics: laser spectroscopy, telemetry, neutron activation analysis, nuclear magnetic resonance, electron spin resonance, tunneling phenomena, electron microscopy, etc. Students were mystified when asked what these topics had in common: none of these topics were in the curriculum when he graduated from college in 1949 and he had worked on all of them during his career. Alas, very few of these topics are in the undergraduate physics curriculum today!

In the face of uncertainty about future areas of scientific research and the nature of research tools, it will be critical to make new facilities as flexible as possible. Between now and 2025, instructors and students will probably use facilities in ways which are currently inconceivable. Suppose the disciplines are disbanded? Can laboratories and classrooms be reoutfitted to support interdisciplinary work? Is conduit installed so electrical and computer networks can be repositioned whenever the furniture is completely rearranged? Is the furniture modular and sturdy? Are there spaces for large, medium and small groups to work collaboratively? Are there spaces where individuals can pull away to ponder and reflect? What about ceiling and floor hooks? What about access to computer media? Internet? Telephones? The outdoors? The metaphor for the science laboratory-classroom of the future is that of a giant electrical Lego set capable of being constructed in an endless array of fractal patterns to enhance learning through both collaboration and individual discovery.

Over thirty years ago, John Steinbeck observed: "We…can have no conception of human life and human thought in one hundred or fifty years. Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know. The sad ones are those who waste their energy trying to hold it (change) back, for they can only feel bitterness in loss and no joy in gain."